Friday, 8 April 2011

Perplexing prepositions

Prepositions are words like “on” and “under” that indicate relative position, as in “on/under the table”, and introduce fixed expressions like “under the circumstances”.

In its second type of function, which is less literal or "physical", uncertainty or confusion sometimes arises. For example: Should we say “different from”, “different to” or “different than”?

It came as a surprise to me that the Concise Oxford Dictionary allows all three, while suggesting that “different from” is the most common form, except in American usage, where “different than” is preferred.

A good case can be made for preferring “from”. No one I know says “X differs to Y in such and such a respect” – everyone says “X differs from Y”; so “X is different from Y” simply makes more sense than “X is different to Y”.

“Different to” may have arisen as a result of (con)fusion with the closely-related “similar to”, while “different than” may be the result of fusion with so-called degrees of comparison (expressed by phrases like “bigger than”, “taller than”), since it is precisely an awareness of a difference between two things that leads one to use comparative phrases like “bigger than”.

Whatever the reasons may be, I would (and do!) stick with “different from”.

More perplexing prepositions – compare with, or compare to?

We say “You should compare apples with apples”, not “ … to apples”. Yet many years ago Shakespeare wrote to his sweetheart: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, not “… with a summer’s day?”

Did that great master of English literature make a mistake?

Not at all. The phrase “compare to” is used for comparing things that are essentially different but display some similarities, such as Shakespeare’s sweetheart and a summer’s day. (The old English word “liken” as a synonym for “compare” could help us here – Shakespeare could have written: “Shall I liken thee to a summer’s day?” – note: not “with”.)

By contrast, “compare with” is used when things are essentially the same but display some differences. So these are correct: “How does a Mercedes compare with an Audi?” and “The teacher compared Rick’s first-term results with his second-term results”, while “How does a Mercedes compare to an Audi?” and “The teacher compared Rick’s first-term results to his second-term results” do not represent acceptable usage. –ws–

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